My husband plays this little game every now and then. I’m not sure whether it’s his way of preparing for the worst thing imaginable to him. His Armageddon. His Apocalypse. His Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Out of the blue he will ask me: “If you had to give up all but one meat, which one would you keep?”. To me, this question was always a bit of a conundrum. Lamb seemed the obvious choice. Ribs, roasted till the fatty bits are all crispy. Shanks, slow cooked in Port till the meat melts off the bone. Chops, cooked on an open fire, surrounded by friends. Leg, done till slightly pink and served with lakes of rich gravy. But then what about bacon? I mean, pork would lose if not for bacon, but bacon complicates matters greatly. A pickle. But like anything, I needed to lose both to realise what mattered most to me. We technically can’t get bacon in Qingpu. Or at least, we can get something that says bacon on the packet. And “Elaborate Bacon” at that. But it’s some sort of processed, smoked meat chopped into bits and reassembled into a shape vaguely resembling that most essential BLT ingredient. And after our favourite teppanyaki restaurant closed its doors overnight despite being an apparent roaring success, we could no longer get mutton or lamb in any shape or form either. So, in those desperate days where I could not tuck into either a lamb chop or a perfectly crisp slice of streaky bacon, lamb is what I would’ve run to if you’d put it opposite bacon and had them both call me at the same time.
I am therefore slightly embarrassed that it took me four months to discover the wonder that is Shanghai’s Friday morning Muslim market. Here, on North Changde Lu in the Jing’an District, you can get lamb in every conceivable style – fresh, cooked, minced, spiced, baked in dough, steamed in dumplings, skewered onto kebabs. And oh. My. Word. As a half blood Afrikaner meisie it pains me to say that the lamb I have eaten in China is better than any Karoo lamb I’ve had back home. Granted, it won’t be to everyone’s taste. As lamb goes, it’s fairly lean (if you don’t have the tail bit) and it has that really strong animal flavour you only ever get when you know someone who knows someone who can get his hands on one of those sheep who was actually destined to provide only wool, but then met an untimely end in a sausage machine.
But wait! Before we get to the market, a little detour is essential. To get to the market, you absolutely have to take the (less than) scenic route via Yanping Road. What you are looking for is Wuyuan bĭngjiā (or W.Y. Fanriy Cake – fancy cake? fairy cake? I don’t know, but look out for the orange sign). Here you will find xie ke huang – tiny, crispy, golden sweet or savoury crab shell pies. The pies don’t necessarily contain crab (although our interpreter did tell us that the ones we had here were crab roe, which I’m a bit dubious about given the pale colour). Rather, they are so called because the finished product resembles golden crab shells. The savoury fillings can contain fresh meat or crab meal, shrimps, spring onion and lard and the sweet ones are filled with sugar, rose water and bean or date paste – the sweet filling when warm has the consistency of thick syrup. The pastry is made from oiled, fermented flour and is wrapped around the filling, rolled in sesame seeds and then baked on the walls of a clay oven. It it hard to say what it is that makes me yearn for these little pies, even now. But there is just something about the crispy, flaky pastry giving way to the warm, soft, delicately flavoured center that is addictively moreish. We hadn’t made it halfway up the block before we’d polished off the lot and had to go back for more. Would I lie to you? It’s worth getting off a stop early for them. 蟹壳黄 – just find these characters on the menu and point – there is no English here. Pay inside and either eat in or collect your pies from the window outside. The queue moves very quickly. The pies are around RMB1 each.
Anyway, back to the Muslim Market. The red awninged carts and stalls of the market line both sides of Changde Lu on the sidewalks outside the Huxi Mosque. Most of the vendors are Uyghurs from Xinjiang province. This is the region that makes the sheeping world go round – the lamb here is the fat bottomed (or fat tailed to be precise) breed of sheep that gives the dishes you’ll find here that hearty, flavoursome edge. You can stock up on incense, carpets, jewellery, ornate daggers (can’t have too many of those), nuts, dates, fruit, a mind-boggling selection of raisins and sultanas, naan, and, most importantly lamb. Lots and lots of lamb!
Our first stop was at the steamed dumpling stall. They’re made just like every other jiaozi in Shanghai, but instead of pork they are filled with minced lamb and onions. There are virtually no other spices added – it’s just unadulterated lamby yumminess! The paper thin dough is folded around the lamb mixture, deftly pinched along the edges to seal in the meat and juices and the dumplings are then steamed in massive bamboo steamers.
One of the most popular dishes at the market is pulao (or polos) – mutton pilaf. To make this Uyghur dish, great, big chunks of mutton are boiled with rice, carrots, onions, garlic and sultanas. But while this was one of the main dishes I came for, it didn’t really appeal to me once I saw the pans full of rice. I think I was expecting a little more oomphf. Maybe some spices or something. Anyway, we skipped the pilaf and moved on to the langman – a cold noodle dish served with chilli flakes and sliced vegetable. We moved along – cold noodles are probably great for balancing the richness of the lamb dishes, but we were not outlambed just yet.
We crossed the road and headed for a stand selling samsa – baked Uyghur pies made with minced lamb, onions and spices, the Turkic Central Asian version of the better known samoosa. At the first such stall we came across (where they also sold their own version of apo zong) the samsa was fried, rather than baked. The vendor was incredibly friendly, standing with a toothless grin from ear to ear. But I’m sorry friendly mister vendor man, I really didn’t like the pies. They were rather oily (a bit like a bad South African vetkoek shell) and the meat was overpoweringly flavoured with cardamom instead of subtle cumin.
Disappointment was soon followed by elation though, as we came to a vendor selling roast lamb shoulder and ribs. The lamb is marinated in yogurt flavoured with just a hint of spices and a generous lashing of turmeric that turns it a gloriously golden hue. It is then slow roasted to fall-off-the-bone perfection. I have thought of this lamb at least once a week since we had it. Truth be told, I get a little melancholic every, single time. Just point at the bits you want and the vendor will cleave it all up into bite sized pieces for you.
Next up was an altogether better samsa stall. Here the pies are baked on the sides of a tandoor oven in the traditional manner. A bit like a hot pocket, the pies are encased in a bread shell – similar to a thin, crispy, smokey pizza crust – and the meat is very subtly spiced so that none of the beautiful flavour of the lamb is overpowered. The little parcels are slapped against the walls of the oven and poked around for a bit until they’re cooked.
I’ve only highlighted a few of the delicacies to be had here, but it was impossible to try everything. It was one of those days I wished I were a cow with a few extra stomachs (okay, I wish that most days). In between there were also various stalls selling kebabs assembled in every possible meaty permutation and slow roasted over coal fires. We didn’t even get to these, but if they’re anything like some of the other mutton kebabs I’ve had on the street, they’d be beautifully tender and perfect sprinkled with a bit of cumin and paprika and a dash of chilli. There are stalls selling homemade, filled pastas, fried and syrup soaked pastries, baklava and other sweets and bowls full of dogh – chipped ice covered in yoghurt and drizzled with honey. There is also fresh lamb for sale – from whole carcasses to stripped down spines and fat encased kidneys and all the bits in between. If a fly on your food puts you off then… well then how do you eat in China? The Friday Muslim Market was a truly memorable culinary experience and is well worth a visit. I suggest you buy at least two of everything because you’ll be sorry by Saturday if you don’t!
Take line 7 on the MTR. If you’re going to stop off for some crab shell pies first, then get off at Changping Road. Head west on Changping Lu until you hit Yanping Lu. Turn left. The bakery is about 300m down the road on your right. From here, head back to Changde Lu and just follow it north until your nose finds the market. If you’re allergic to shellfish (the only conceivable reason why you’d miss out on the crab shell pies), get off at Changshou Road and head north from there.
Wuyuan Bakery, 255 Yanping Lu, +86 21 6256 5556, 6 a.m.-11 p.m.
Friday Shanghai Muslim Market, Changde Lu between Aomen Lu and Yichang Lu, every Friday from 11am onwards.